Electrelane, "No Shouts No Calls" Good news: "No Shouts" distilled Electrelane to its core with a set that hinged on the band's loud-soft dynamics and predilection for ominous build-ups and fevered repetition. It's easily the most cohesive and dynamic album yet from this lean British quartet. Bad news: Last month the art-rockers announced they were taking an "indefinite hiatus," which allows them to go out on top - and much to our genuine dismay.
Bon Iver, "For Emma, Forever Ago" Recorded in the heart of a Wisconsin winter yet imbued with deep warmth, this late-night treasure from singer-songwriter Justin Vernon was the little indie album that could this year - an underground sensation online (virb.com/boniver) months before its official release next February on Secretly Canadian.
Kanye West, "Graduation" In his would-be sales showdown with 50 Cent, West outsold his rival and appealed to a vast demographic with an album fearless (and peerless) in its freewheeling innovation, including surprising cameos (Coldplay's Chris Martin) and a heartfelt homage to Jay-Z ("Big Brother").
Phosphorescent, "Pride" As Phosphorescent, Matthew Houck has grown into an indie-rock Kris Kristofferson, sketching narcotic tales cast in the neon glow of life after hours. On his third album, he delivers on the promise of earlier efforts with some of the year's most incandescent and elusive songs ("Cocaine Lights").
Papercuts, "Can't Go Back" Never underestimate the power of a good tambourine or cello in pop music. Papercuts certainly didn't on its sophomore album, which shimmers and broods with traces of '60s psych-pop a la the Velvet Underground.
Brenda Ray, "Walatta" Behold a brash novelty that actually succeeded: British post-punk musician Ray gathered vintage reggae and ska melodies and overdubbed them with her ethereal vocals and original accompaniment. Consider it the reggae album Laurie Anderson never made.
PJ Harvey, "White Chalk" Perhaps only PJ Harvey could make a piano sound as sinister and possessed as it does on her latest U-turn. Swapping shredding guitars for plodding piano, Harvey plumbs the quieter side of her psyche to equally unsettling and eerie results.
Bettye LaVette, "The Scene of the Crime" Thirty-five years after Atlantic Records shelved her funk masterpiece, "Child of the Seventies," LaVette returns to the scene of the crime (Muscle Shoals, Ala.) and grinds out a resilient and resplendent soul nugget, with Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers giving her room to exorcise her demons and heal.
Richard Swift, "Dressed Up for the Letdown" This curiously underrated tunesmith wins this year's award for sheer bliss with an addictive album that evoked the effervescence of pop geniuses before him. Somewhere Harry Nilsson is nodding in approval.
Various artists, "Cult Cargo: Grand Bahama Goombay" and "The Roots of Chicha." Funkier than a mosquito's tweeter, these two compilations proved that down-and-dirty dance music blossoms in the most unexpected places. "Cult Cargo" collected unknown pleasures from African and Caribbean artists recording in the late 1960s and '70s, while "The Roots of Chicha" explored psychedelic cumbias from Peru around the same era.